The Meaning And Nature Of Sacrifice

The ancient Italic Tables of Iguvium (Umbria) allude to rites of passage or gate ceremonies involving the sacrifice of animals. These rites were complex and precise: the town could only be purified by means of appropriate animal sacrifices at each of its three gates. Thus at one entrance, three oxen and three pregnant sows were killed; at the second, o three oxen and three sucking-pigs; at the third, three white-faced oxen and three ewe-lambs. This is a fascinating insight into the intricacies of sacrifice and its purpose: entrances were especially vulnerable and had to be protected. Fertility ritual can be inferred from the involvement of sows, sucking-pigs and ewe-lambs - all either pregnant or young animals. Oxen were present in all three gate rites, perhaps because of their agricultural importance.

Our evidence for the pre-literate Celtic world is very imprecise compared to the extraordinarily detailed data of the Iguvium Tables, but there are hints of similarly important and complicated sacrificial rituals involving the destruction of beasts. Indeed, at Camonica Valley, the rock art shows scenes of sacrifice, with an animal, an altar and a temple.9 In terms of precise parallels with early Umbria, we can point to the Gaulish sanctuary of Gournay (Oise), where elderly oxen were sacrificed to guard the entrance to the shrine and where parts of their bodies flanked the gateway.10

Sacrifice involves the permanent removal of otherwise useful or valuable objects from daily life, for offerings to the forces of the supernatural. For the Celts, as for other peoples, a sacrifice had somehow to be destroyed in order for it to pass over into the Otherworld. Metalwork was bent or broken or cast into an inaccessible place such as a marsh or river. Animals had to be killed in order to reinforce life. The life-force of a sacrifice could not be released into the supernatural world unless its links with this world were first severed. This is a case of 'rendering unto God the things that are God's'. By being given over to the supernatural world, the sacrificial victim served to shift these Otherworld forces towards the earth and focus them on the person or persons who performed the ritual.11 The idea seems to have been that a death released new life and force, the sacrifice establishing a channel of communication between this world and the realm of the supernatural.

The sacrifice of an animal could have a number of different purposes. Classical writers do not allude a great deal to Celtic animal sacrifice, perhaps because it was a commonplace activity and familiar, too, in

their own Mediterranean world. Where they do mention such activity, the reasons given for sacrifice include augury and divination - both magical devices for foretelling the future by observing the actions of animals and birds in life and in the throes of death. In the Battle of Orange of 105 BC, the Cimbri are

reported to have promised the gods all the spoils of the battlefield, enemies and animals and weapons. Animal sacrifices could be thank-offerings, as in this case, or they could be acts of propitiation - for a cure from disease, to ask for fertility for oneself, one's livestock or crops. Alternatively, they could be divinatory - to provide people with an understanding of happenings and processes beyond their earthly control. They could also be acts of communication between people and the gods. Thus the underworld deities could be appeased by a chthonic sacrifice, the burial of an animal in the ground, so that its juices and flesh would become one with the earth itself and penetrate deep underground. Barry Cunliffe suggests14 that the sacrifices buried in grainstorage pits in south-east Britain, could be translated into water-burials elsewhere: both evoke similar ideas of reaching the regions of the underworld. A sacrifice might be given wholly to the gods or divided between the divine powers and humans. Thus some pieces might be left uneaten (the gods' portion) and others consumed. There is some evidence, as at Bliesbruck (Moselle) for instance, that the best bits were consumed by people in ritual feasts and the less palatable portions (offal, intestines) were offered to the divine forces. This kind of apparent cynicism was common also in Greek religion.15

Disused Burial Pit Danebury

Figure 5.2 Ritual burial of a goat in a disused Iron Age grain storage pit, Danebury, Hampshire. By courtesy of the Danebury Trust.

The deposition of animals by sacrificial ritual was an important way of communicating with the gods.16 In sanctuaries where ritual feasting took place, the consumption of food within a sacred space represented a kind of conviviality between the consumers and the divinities of the holy ground.17 Among the Iban of Borneo 'animals play an important part as intermediaries, both as messengers of the gods and as vehicles for human supplication to the spirit world'.18 The gods of the Iban are perceived as using animals as go-betweens, to allow humans to see into the future. Humans make contact with the gods by such ritual activities as cock-fighting and by the consumption of sacrificial meat. Birds, with their sky domain, are perceived as a link between the living Iban and their ancestral spirits.

Figure 5.3 Plate of the Gundestrup Cauldron depicting a triple bull-slaying scene. Paul Jenkins.

The importance of animal sacrifice and ritual for the Celts and for other peoples, as a means of communicating with the supernatural, prompts the question as to what the animals represented. It is possible that beasts were perceived as being close enough to humans to be substitutes for human sacrifice.19 The Celts did practise human sacrifice but not very often, and it may be that animals were more frequently used instead. After all, animals share a great many characteristics with humans. What is interesting about Celtic animal sacrifice is that by far the majority of animals killed belonged to domestic species, those creatures which shared man's life and aided him in his work, bore him in battle, fed and clothed him.

The organization of animal sacrifice may have been quite complex: many different individuals would have been involved in any given ritual. Of these, the most important were firstly the person or group of persons who provided the sacrificial victim and who were, presumably, the main beneficiaries of the ritual, and secondly, the person(s) who performed the rite of sacrifice itself. These may have been professional functionaries, religious specialists who took charge of the rituals, from the reception and slaughter of the victim to the prayers, chanting and communication with the forces of the supernatural who received the 21

gift. Caesar tells us of one such group of religious officials, the Druids, who, he says, were in charge of public and private sacrifice in Gaul. The professional sacrificers must have been accorded high status, because their job was to handle sacred objects. It is interesting to speculate as to the precise moment at which an animal became holy: when it was chosen by the initiator, when it was handed over to the priest or only when it had been killed. Once an animal had been selected for sacrifice, it may have attained a kind of separateness and sanctity. The religious functionaries in charge of sacrifice had a strange, ambiguous job: they were high-ranking priests with an ability to form a close contact with the supernatural world, but they also dealt with the fairly messy matter of slaughter. It may be that there existed colleges of functionaries of differing ranks, the lower echelons of whom dealt with the practical side of sacrifice. But we know that Roman priests, the haruspices ('gutgazers') for instance, certainly handled entrails and livers themselves.

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